Getting your gambling freak on with Kaiji and Kakegurui

At the time of its original broadcast, the anime adaptation of Kaiji felt like a breath of fresh air…albeit air that carried a waft of sweat, cheap booze, cigarette smoke and desperation. During a time when, in the English-speaking fan community at least, there was a widespread acknowledgment of how commonplace the “moe” aesthetic had become, it was quite striking to see a TV anime show with a deliberately crude and rather ugly aesthetic. The line art was thick, angular and bold; the cast was overwhelmingly male and drawn with large pointed noses and mean, narrowed eyes; the narration was delivered with the gruff excitability of a sports commentator and moments of tension were illustrated through those ominous onomatopoeic “zawa zawaaa~”s.

The general premise is that a vaguely-likeable underdog is the hero because his redeeming qualities are cast in such sharp relief by villains who are so much worse. In a world of grotesque mob bosses, uniformed yakuza thugs and snivelling cowards, a deadbeat petty criminal is quite rightly seen as a hero when his earnest efforts are betrayed and he rages against the system that seeks to destroy him.

Knowledge of game theory is helpful but not essential to enjoy Kaiji, but the psychology and cliff-hanging suspense are the main sources of fuel for the story. Even if the specifics of the games are lost on you, the journey from directionless loser to determined survivor is what matters; it’s just great to see a down-on-his-luck everyman stick it to The Man.

On a conceptual level, Kakegurui has a lot in common with Fukumoto’s gambling tales such as Kaiji: the wild-card protagonist, the suffocating power structure that the hero is pitted against, and the convoluted and imaginative mechanics that dictate how the games function are fairly similar. I’m not sure however whether Homura Kawamoto was directly inspired by Fukumoto or whether he draws from the gambling manga genre as a whole. Beyond these general storytelling building blocks, the type of protagonist and the premise are markedly different, which alters the whole dynamic between her and the antagonists. While Kaiji is a struggle for survival where our hero is putting his very life on the line, it is inferred that the heroine of Kakegurui has a considerable amount of wealth to fall back on so the events that transpire really are just a game. It’s less gritty and perhaps less suspenseful, but is more playful and feels more “conventional” as far as anime shows are concerned with its numerous attractive girls and high school setting.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t “do” socio-political commentary, or that actions do not have consequences. It’s just showing different sides to the ugliness and foolishness of gambling, the organisations that perpetuate it, and the effects that it has on its participants. Kaiji shows the grimy underbelly of society and the cruelty of those in power, but Kakegurui also portrays a cold and calculating network of privileged and influential figures who manipulate everyone else for their own ends (which is often idle amusement rather than financial gain). While Kaiji is trying to pay off debts and take money out of the tight grubby fists of organised criminals, Yumeko Jabami is unpicking the school council’s neat order by showing them the same level of frivolous disregard for the rules that *they* show towards the “ordinary” students.

Kaiji is perhaps more relatable, but there’s still a lot of schadenfreude in seeing Yumeko take on the student council and ensuring that, for those guilty of pride and deceit, their fall is decisive and thoroughly satisfying. In some ways it makes her a more intimidating adversary because she’s not seeking out the loopholes and fighting for survival: she’s playing along and turning their own corruption against them. Kaiji is making an undignified leap for freedom while Yumeko is, simply put, in it for the lulz.

Again: these are two contrasting, but by no means mutually exclusive, sides to gambling. Kaiji is more direct, showing the whole business to be vulgar from the outset while Kakegurui throws up the glamorous façade before stripping it away to show the unpleasantness behind.

The popular portrayal of gambling – when it’s not ruining lives of the lower classes, that is – is often shown as glamorous: casinos and racetracks are advertised with glitz and shine, while well-dressed and beautiful people throw cash around with effortless abandon. Kakegurui acknowledges this popular perception but also how superficial it truly is: partly through the humiliation of the class “pets” with the majority of the students placed between them and the untouchable student council, and partly through the behaviour of the council members themselves.

Kakegurui is in stark contrast to Kaiji from an aesthetic standpoint with its more gender-balanced cast who are for the most part well-dressed and beautiful. While gambling is often advertised as sexy and exciting, Kakegurui manages to effectively convey that while also showing this sexiness to be sordid and undignified. The girls are confident, busty and impeccably turned-out with long legs and dramatically swishing hair, but the animators go out of the way to show them as occasionally ugly and out of control as well.

The live-action adaptation cranks it up still further, but rather than trying to squeeze the comic book excesses into the shape of regular television it accepts the limitations and abandons any intention of taking itself seriously. There are minor concessions – such as using CGI to momentarily make characters’ eyes literally glow with excitement or reduce the size of their pupils to illustrate shock and surprise – but for the most part the cartoonishness is played up for comedy value through good old-fashioned over-acting. Aoi Morikawa’s scenery-chewing turn as Mary Saotome is a standout, but the performances across the board are wonderfully hammed-up and goofy, which obliterates any gravity the story may have had but only heightens the absurdity of it all.

I also suspect that there were budgetary constraints in place, but even these are turned around with a slightly self-depreciating wink. There are a number of scenes in which the background action pauses while someone delivers an explanatory monologue; dead easy to achieve in animation, but much more difficult on a live-action set. For Kakegurui the cheapest and most glaringly obvious shortcut is chosen in which the background characters literally hold their positions in an hilariously amateurish approximation of a freeze-frame while the protagonist delivers excited and in-depth exposition in front of them. It’s not dissimilar to the episode endings of the old Police Squad! TV show of the early 80s, and had me in stitches every time.

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